The U.S.’s top diplomat for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, called the recent tensions between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) a reminder of the “threat” posed by China. Her comments come at a time when the U.S.-China relationship, already strained due to trade disputes, has further deteriorated over U.S. accusations of China’s mismanagement of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“The flare-ups on the border I think are a reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical. And so whether it’s on the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behaviour by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power,” she said during a briefing call with reporters in response to a question on the India-China border tension.
Ms. Wells also said China’s behaviour was causing other nations to group together to reinforce the post Second World War economic order. She cited ASEAN, the trilateral partnership between India, the U.S. and Japan as well as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with these countries and Australia.
“What we want to see is an international system that provides benefit to everyone. And not a system in which there is a suzerainty to China. And so I think in this instance the border disputes are a reminder of the threat posed by China,” she said.
The U.S. has been pushing back against China on other fronts as well. China’s global infrastructure projects under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) are a case in point.
In response to the controversy between the ruling Nepal Congress Party and the opposition Nepal Communist Party over the U.S.’s grant assistance of $500 million (Nepal is putting forward another $130 million) via its Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Ms. Wells said the controversy was “disturbing” and expressed confidence that Nepal wasn’t being dictated to by China. Nepal’s Parliament will need to ratify the MCC grant before it can take effect. The assistance has been seen as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which Nepal has signed on to.
“The fact that this grant assistance — not a loan — and the potential of this grant assistance has become a political football is disturbing,” Ms. Wells said.
Trade deal with India
On the prospects of India and the U.S. reaching a limited trade deal — the two countries had hoped to conclude it in time for Mr. Trump’s visit to India in February — Ms. Wells said the momentum was “very much present” and the countries were working towards a deal but she could not predict whether a deal would be concluded by the end of this year. She said there were concerns that India still remained a “quite protected market that can be difficult and sometimes not provide a level-playing field for foreign companies.”
“I think what we should focus on, again, is this post-pandemic environment, when countries are looking at a little bit of de-globalisation and on-shoring of more of the critical production… at the same time that that’s taking place, I think there's a very vigorous effort to diversify supply chains.”
Adopting more open and welcoming policies and reducing tariffs would help India make use of an opportunity, Ms. Wells said, highlighting the critically important role that India would play in the treatment and health of the world, with its vaccine, pharmaceutical and generic drug production.
Ms Wells is due to retire from a decades-long diplomatic career at the end of this month